Thursday, October 28, 2010

Michael Owen insists he's still good enough for Manchester United

The Manchester United striker admits age and injuries have taken their toll but he remains determined to go out at the top.

'I never thought I would start every game when I joined the club. Honestly, I've loved it here,' says Michael Owen of Manchester United. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

The tone was set on the opening night of the season. The first game is always a special day for football people. But when Sir Alex Ferguson announced his team, for one person in the Manchester United dressing room, there was nothing but crushing disappointment. Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov were in from the start; fair enough. Javier Hernández, the new signing, and Federico Macheda were among the substitutes, but there was no room for Michael Owen – no place in the 18 for the man once regarded as the most devastating finisher in the sport.

He has grown wearily accustomed to watching football in a club suit, but it never gets easier. In total, he has made only six starts for Manchester United in the Premier League, and 14 in total, since moving from Newcastle United 16 months ago. They are the kind of statistics to prompt legitimate questions of whether this is a man being shunted to the edges. But Owen insists he is settled, that he wants to stay and will get more job satisfaction from the odd game at Old Trafford than he would, say, from playing regularly for a club in the bottom half of the league.

Two months away from turning 31, he is also acutely aware that leaving United would mean his career heading one way: down. Owen had a miserable time at Newcastle. He will always be grateful to Sir Alex Ferguson for offering him another chance to win a league winners' medal when the rest of English football had virtually turned its back on him, and there is only one moment when he expresses anything remotely approaching dissatisfaction with his current employer.

It is when he is asked why Ferguson has been so reluctant to partner him with Rooney when it once worked so well for England. His body language changes immediately: guarded, wary, looking for the right words. He knows the answer, he says, because the manager has explained it to him, but he does not feel like he should talk about it. Later, he adds to the intrigue by saying it is not a tactical decision, though he will not be pushed further.

Ferguson's preference is for Rooney to partner Berbatov, though Hernández's blistering form is threatening the order, while he is unwavering in his belief that the 19-year-old Federico Macheda will eventually be a hero of Old Trafford. Owen now seems to be fifth in line, regardless of all those goals from a glorious past.

The injuries, by his own admission, have taken their toll. "They had taken something away by the time I was 21, to be honest. At 18 to 20, I was probably one of the quickest things around, at the peak of my powers. But what can you do? I can play different ways now. I can link play better now, I can do things I couldn't do when I was younger. And you never lose the instinct of being a goalscorer, of knowing where the ball is going to drop. It can just take a bit longer to get into that position now."

In January he would be six months from the end of his contract and free to speak to other clubs. "It's a question for the manager really, but if you ask my opinion I would love to stay. I never thought I would start every game when I joined the club and I have never complained about anything.

"Honestly, I've loved it here. I signed a two-year contract, I'm only 60% into that and hopefully we will talk [about extending it] before the end of the season."

Gérard Houllier, his former manager at Liverpool, is said to be keen to take him to Aston Villa. Liverpool, too, have been linked with their former player. There would be no shortage of potential suitors but Owen feels Old Trafford is the sort of place where he belongs.

"I won't drop down the leagues and whether I would even want to drop down to a poorer Premier League team … I don't know. Yes, I could score goals, but I would probably get less opportunities and less enjoyment.

"I think I'd rather play less and train with top players, rather than playing every minute of every game, getting three or four touches and not enjoying it."

There have been difficult moments with United, though. The time, for example, when he scored a hat-trick at Wolsfburg in the Champions League but was dropped for the next match.

"But I'm 30, I have been around and I understand how it works. I am not going to kid myself because I know that if I were fit and scored a hat-trick in the next two or three games, Wayne would still come back into the team when he is fit again. I know I am not as good as him. Maybe 10 years ago you could argue I was – but not now.

"This season, too, I scored two against Scunthorpe [in the Carling Cup]. The next game I was on the bench but came on and scored and then the next game we played, at Valencia, we used three strikers [even with Rooney left at home] and I was an unused sub."

Owen comes armed with his own statistic, one that says he has scored in every 111 minutes he has been on the pitch. Hernández is the only other striker at Old Trafford with a more prolific record.

"He's a goalscorer; you can see it in his eyes," Owen, an ambassador for BT Chat for Children, says of the Mexican. "It's hard to explain this without fear of it being taken the wrong way, but it's still early days, and who knows what will happen? But he's got something. He knows how to score goals, he knows how to get in the positions."

Does he remind him of anyone? "Myself, probably."

Previous interviews with Owen would always lead in the direction of talking about England and whether he felt he could get back into Fabio Capello's plans. "It is probably a reflection on Owen's lack of minutes at United that his status as an international footballer is prefixed by the word "former" these days, even though he is nearly three years younger than England's latest cap, Kevin Davies.

This interview finishes on a subject that makes him wince far more than talk of his game-time: his hamstring. On Friday, in the last minute of training, Owen attempted a back-heel to John O'Shea and felt a sharp, familiar pain. He will be out for four weeks, potentially missing seven games. "I just want to get fit again and playing and I'm sure I can score goals at this level for a long time."

Daniel Taylor
Wednesday 27 October 2010
Guardian UK


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